Fight or Flight? – Annie Navin

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“So that’s it. It’s all over.”

I remember these words being spoken by my fellow intern, Mim Cameron, as we settled into our car seats on the last day of Forum. It was Sunday, about midday. Most of the delegates had left, our belts were buckled and the Ford Territory was poised to exit the grounds of the Hyatt.

In the same way, I sat poised in anticipation of the three-hour drive ahead of us. Cruising down the picturesque Hume Highway meant there would be the chance to mull over the grand significance of the past four days; the highs and lows; our hopes; our regrets. I remember feeling unsure about how to process the enormity of what we had just accomplished. I even felt a little sad that it was, indeed, all over. But what did Mim think? We’d been on the road for ten minutes, and I had already come up with the perfectly existential question to ask her. It was a cracker – the kind of question that demands a journey into the soul – very ‘NSLF’, very road trip worthy. I sensed that Mim was on the same page. We were going to discuss the deep stuff; the stuff that really mattered. Just as we were approaching the outskirts of Canberra, Mim turned to me and asked,

“I’m starving. Wanna get a burrito?”

Okay, maybe not.

If anyone asked, I would use the word anticipation to describe my experience of working at the National Student Leadership Forum as an intern.

Every week you enter the little office in Killara and plug away at various tasks and projects. All the while, you recall your own experience as a delegate, basing your imaginings of the upcoming Forum on the year prior. It isn’t quite palatable yet, but the significance of it all looms large. I remember sorting through all the delegate applications and feeling little tingles of excitement on behalf of the names on each page.

As for the Forum itself, this is also fraught with anticipation. You’re always on your toes, thinking about what job to do next or where the delegates need to be for this talk or that. I think all the other interns would agree that adrenalin is the substance of choice. The energy of the whole thing is contagious. Finding the appropriate balance between lack of sleep and frenetic activity is essential if you want to function at maximum capacity without teetering into full-on stress-out mode.

But this does not speak of the entirety of my experience.

Having the chance to reflect on the drive back to Sydney was really worthwhile. But more than anything, I couldn’t wait to go home. The buzz of the Forum had started to recede and was replaced with a desire to get back to what I knew, what was familiar. Home had a warm bed with the promise of a good night’s sleep and some much needed time-out.

Of course this, in itself, was understandable and hardly an unnatural response. However, it got me thinking about other human responses to the inevitable throws of life. Namely, how we react to things that are stressful, uncomfortable or outside the recognisable. Often, when this occurs, our instincts resort to the ‘fight or flight’ response. I think it’s insistence in our lives is pretty subtle but nonetheless worthy of attribution.

For example, a loved one takes a cheap shot at something you view as a character flaw – like laziness. This, in turn, triggers denial and a desire to point out the flaws of the person who was daring enough to antagonise you (fight).

On the other hand, you might be picking uni subjects for the upcoming semester and you’ve narrowed your options down to two units that are both appealing. One has a solo presentation as one of its key assessments. The other has a 2000-word essay. All other things being equal, you pick the one that doesn’t involve public speaking (flight).

I saw this flight or fight response in its raw entirety a few weeks ago. I was spending a weekend at my Mum’s property, a few hours outside of Sydney. It’s a pretty piece of acreage that you cross a river to reach. She has a couple of horses that roam the paddocks around her house, one of which gave birth at the start of spring. One morning I came out onto the balcony and saw the family dog (ever so boldly) barking at the barely-4-weeks-old foal. Naturally, as horses do, it kicked up a fuss and bolted away as fast as it could. Unfortunately it didn’t see the fence up ahead and went head first into some rusty wire. The foal panicked and jerked its head around whilst my (oh so annoying) dog continued its verbal tirade against the innocent baby and it’s increasingly distraught Mum. Thankfully, however, it broke free uninjured before I had to intervene and galloped off to one of the distant paddocks where it was out of danger. Needless to say, the dog was chastised appropriately.

One of the best things about the Forum, in my opinion, is the small group time. Getting to know so many capable and charismatic people is a greatly inspiring and humbling experience. As such, being forced to lay down arms and bear your life to them can be as uncomfortable as it is unfamiliar. Highly worthy, in my opinion, of invoking a flight or fight response. But fighting would be pretty awkward, and flight isn’t very cost effective given that you’ve already dished out one and a half grand for the whole shebang. So really – you just have to cop it. It’s a true test of vulnerability.

Being vulnerable with others is important because it is the key to fulfilling relationships. I think, deep down, this is something that we all value as human beings. Its common knowledge that we are relational – herd animals if you like – and need to love others in order to flourish. Why else do we seek the support of others during our darkest moments? A funeral is never a solitary affair nor does one overcome depression or other psychological disorders through their own means. By the same token, Charlotte Bronte was right when she said “happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness.” Or more colloquially, Snoop Dogg says “it ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none” (Yeah I went there).

Moreover, when the seemingly interminable walls of self-preservation, pride and egotism are broken down between two or more people, the openness that follows is food for the soul and mind. Knowing that someone trusts you enough to share the deepest part of themselves is a joy and a privilege. This is what giving yourself to someone else looks like. It is also the catalyst for real personal growth and change.

I came across this really cool quote the other day, and thought it was very fitting: “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

This highlights the fact that being vulnerable doesn’t necessarily look pretty. It can be stressful, uncomfortable or demoralising. It often reveals dark parts of yourself that you would rather ignore. But rather than seeing these factors as a deterrent, we should embrace them. Otherwise, I think you’re living your life in anticipation – seeing the challenges on the horizon but never approaching them. Knowing that you might lose face or be hurt is a worthy price to pay when you think of the benefits, which might be encouraging someone in relationship or dealing with some unpleasant part of yourself that you’ve been too proud to admit to up until now.

Having the humility to do this is essential. I think the Jesus of the Bible provides the perfect example of humility if you look at what he did in the New Testament. There are countless examples, but more than anything, he “made himself nothing, and took the very nature of a servant” in order to love others. Despite my anxiety-riddled response to the idea of sharing ‘my story’ I was so glad I did it. Seeking to become like the Jesus of the Bible is something I value more than little self-doubts and ‘I don’t want to do that’ moments.

It’s an unambiguously didactic end to this blog post, but my appeal is for people to simply reach beyond their comfort zones. It’s undeniably hard – the body and soul would rather flee from discomfort or fight whatever is causing anxiety. But despite how counterintuitive it feels, pressing into those peculiar moments is well worth the pain. And it doesn’t hurt to keep a sense of perspective. The foal that ran into the wire was okay in the end. But most of all, I think we can appreciate those moments when we consider their potential to make others better off. And maybe ourselves too while we’re at it.

And for what it’s worth, the burritos were great. And we had some great convos on the way back (Mim you’re the best).

Title: Fight or Flight?
Author: Annie Navin
Format: Blog Post
Published: October, 2014
Publisher: National Student Leadership Forum
Access: Online Library of the National Student Leadership Forum

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